Time has been blown on the Golden Whistle. Lu Jun, who earned that nickname when he was one of the country’s leading soccer referees, has been sentenced to five and a half years in jail for taking more than RMB710,000 ($113,000) in bribes to fix matches between 1999 and 2003. He is also to have personal property worth RMB100,000 confiscated. Lu is the man on the left of the Xinhua file picture to the right, taken in 2002, the year he became the first Chinese to officiate in a World Cup Finals.
Lu was one of nine convicted on corruption charges relating to Chinese football, whose professional soccer leagues have been plagued with allegations of gambling, match fixing and corrupt referees for years. The most severe sentence imposed in this latest batch of convictions was seven years imprisonment handed down to another Black Whistle, as corrupt referees are known, Huang Junjie. He is to have RMB200,000 of personal property confiscated. The former manager of the top professional league, the Super League, Lu Feng, is to serve six and a half years for corruption.
Other cases outstanding include the trials of Zhang Jianqiang, ex-director of the referees committee of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), and a former CFA vice-president, Yang Yimin. Both men’s trials started in December. (Update: Their sentences have now been handed down.)
Some 20 referees, players, officials and coaches have been arrested in a crackdown that stared in 2009 to cleanse the scandal-tainted game. These include former CFA vice-president Nan Yong, who was arrested in March 2010, and his predecessor Xie Yalong. They are still awaiting trial.
Several top-flight clubs, including Shandong Luneng, Shanghai Shenhua, Henan Jianye, Changchun Yatai and Jiangsu Shuntian, were implicated in the scandal. Shanghai Shenhua, for which French international Nicolas Anelka has recently signed, spent nearly $1 million bribing officials and referees such as Lu, the court in Dandong in Liaoning trying Lu was told.
The corruption scandals have overshadowed a dismal performance on the field by China’s national team. Its men’s side has failed to qualify for the next World Cup in Brazil, as it failed to do for the previous two. It also failed to qualify for the London Olympics tournament later this year, as did even its women’s team, which has been a rare beacon of success for Chinese teams in recent years. Even more humbling, China’s national team ranks 76th in the world on FIFA’s rankings. Neighbors Japan and South Korea rank 30th and 34th respectively.
As well as cleaning up the professional game and restoring the luster of the Super League by importing stars like Anelka, the education and sports ministry has launched an aggressive youth development program, including bringing in Jan Riekerink, who was previously coach of the storied Ajax youth team in his native Holland. Meanwhile, more than 100 promising young players have been sent to top professional clubs in Europe and South America in the hope that they or their successors can form the nucleus of a national side that could compete in a World Cup on Chinese soil, still dreamed of by the CFA for 2026.